“Life is difficult.”
The opening sentence of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, a 1978 release that spent eight years on The New York Times Best Sellers list, could be considered an understatement for Lauren Alaina in the years after she finished runner-up to Scotty McCreery on the 2011 edition of Fox’s American Idol. Her parents divorced, her father went to rehab for alcoholism, and she was hiding her own battle with bulimia. Suddenly known by millions, Alaina — who was still a 16-year-old high-school cheerleader when she competed on Idol — had a whole chorus of voices piling on top of her own self-judgment. It was a lot to carry.
“Even before I was in the spotlight, I really worried about my weight,” she concedes. “Then I think just being on national television and people saying not-nice things online really haunted me and made it 10 times worse. I had the eating disorder when I went on Idol, and it really got worse after that.”
Written in the midst of those difficulties, “Road Less Traveled” — Alaina’s current single, which Mercury released to radio via Play MPE on June 27 — helped her transition from a teen trying to fit in with everyone else to an adult willing to embrace, even celebrate, her own uniqueness.
“I felt so much pressure in my career to fit this mold and try to make everyone happy,” recalls Alaina. “I was just in a mood that day where I was like, ‘I don’t want to live my life to make everyone happy and please everyone. I need to be happy.’ I was trying to say that.”
Following your own drummer was likewise an important theme for her co-writers. Jesse Frasure (“Fix,” “Crash and Burn”) had started writing songs with Chris Stapleton in 2012 that leaned toward soul and Motown, bucking against the trends of the time in Nashville. Singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor hadn’t yet broken through with “All About That Bass,” and she shared some of the same insecurities about her physique that plagued Alaina.
“If you asked me, ‘What do you want to say?’ it would be, ‘Love yourself more,’ ” Trainor told Billboard in 2014.
Thus, Alaina found willing partners during a 2013 co-writing session at Major Bob Music on 17th Avenue in Nashville. Alaina wanted to write something uplifting, such as “This One’s for the Girls” or “I Hope You Dance.”
“At the time, it was exactly what I needed to hear, and it’s what my heart was trying to say to me every single day,” recalls Alaina. “I need this song just as much as anybody else may need this song.”
Frasure had created a track with what he calls a “OneRepublic-y kind of feel” prior to the session, and it proved a good match for that anthemic ideal. He may have also provided the title, according to Alaina, who remembers a discussion about the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” in which the writer chooses the road “less traveled by.”
That evolved into the title “Road Less Traveled,” and once the hook was set, the process became a quick exercise. They tackled the chorus first, imploring the listener to “Wear out your boots/And kick up the gravel” while listening to his or her “rebel heart.”
“It’s nice to have the chorus, because it sets up phrasing, it sets up the storyline, and then you work backward from there,” says Frasure.
Back at the start, they kicked right into the body-issue image in the first verse. Alaina didn’t reveal her struggles with bulimia to her co-writers, but they did reference dress sizes and external pressure. And they threw in a pre-chorus that dares the listener to be different: “You won’t make yourself a name if you follow the rules.”
Rather than write a bridge to change direction toward the end, they repeated the chorus over a breakdown section, reinforcing the hook while providing a purposeful change in sound.
“I love scene changes,” says Frasure. “They kind of are a cool palate cleanser, and it almost makes the chorus new again when it comes back.”
Alaina sang a vocal to the track to build the demo, and it was so uplifting that Alaina and Trainor invented a dance in the room, boogying around behind him while Frasure finished the production.
“Poor Jesse. He was putting it all together, and we were doing this stupid dance in the background distracting him,” says Alaina with a laugh.
The demo was entirely programmed instrumentation, so Alaina’s producer, busbee (Maren Morris, Keith Urban), was tasked with finding the best blend of real and synthetic sounds for the actual recording. The intro sets the pace with a banjo taking over a pinging signature lick atop hand claps and an insistent kick drum. As the song progresses, it runs through mostly bright, shiny textures with two banjos twisting around a spacey synth line. It works in context, though it’s likely not something either Earl Scruggs or synth inventor Robert Moog could have foreseen.
“I’ve never been really great at cookie-cutter stuff or copying things,” says busbee. “So for me, it’s literally just trying to constantly be aware of what radio is doing, but also trying to marry that with what the song’s kind of telling us, what the artist is telling us just by their sound.”
Sound was a struggle for Alaina when she went in to record final vocals in summer 2014.
“It was like, she’s driving the car but the steering wheel was slipping and sliding,” says busbee. “She was getting there, but it was really challenging to navigate it in a way that was getting the results that she wanted.”
Alaina, in fact, required vocal surgery — conducted Aug. 12, 2014 — and after her voice healed, she returned to the studio and redid the lead vocals on “Road Less Traveled.” In the process, busbee helped her discover her increased powers, exemplified by a huge note three minutes into her new single.
“I would hear parts and sing them in my head voice,” she remembers. “He’d be like, ‘You can hit that,’ and I’d be like, ‘No, I can’t,’ and then I’d hit it. It was crazy. I didn’t realize how much my voice had grown until I got into the studio and I started hitting notes like the big one in ‘Road Less Traveled.’ ”
The song’s positive message and big production are built to make an impact, and that’s the biggest goal behind “Road Less Traveled.”
“I hope that people latch on to it,” she says. “If I can help one girl who has an eating disorder or one person that thinks they can’t achieve their dreams because they’re from a small town, that’s what it’s all about.”